When you think of free travel, there’s a good chance you immediately focus on travel-rewards-specific credit cards. And while that’s a great strategy for the most part, you might actually be surprised to hear this little secret: Cash back credit cards can also earn you free travel.
But you have to be strategic in which cash back credit cards you consider. By pairing credit cards together, you can actually turn your cash back into points and mileage travel rewards to get you booked on that next vacation even quicker.
Generally speaking, there are two types of cash back credit cards: those that solely earn cash back and those that can earn rewards that are part of a larger travel rewards program. For the purpose of maximizing your free travel, we’ll focus on the latter to show you how those cards that are marketed as cash back can, in fact, land you an airplane ticket or hotel room for next to nothing.
Here are the best cash back credit cards that can turn your rewards into travel.
At CNN Underscored, we’ve picked the Citi Double Cash Card as our best overall cash back credit card. But did you know that the points earned from the card can provide you more rewards than just cash back? With this card, you’ll earn 2% cash back on every purchase you make — 1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your statement — all for no annual fee.
Similar to premium cards like the Citi Premier® Card, the Citi Double Cash Card earns cash back in the form of ThankYou points. This means instead of redeeming your points for cash, you can transfer them to a few select partner programs. But since the transfer ratio is less favorable, to maximize your points and open up the doors to all partner programs, you’ll still need a premium Citi ThankYou card, such as the Premier.
Assuming you spend $12,000 per year, this will net you 24,000 Citi ThankYou Rewards if you spend exclusively on the Citi Double Cash Card. If you’re looking for an easy-to-use program for domestic travel, you can transfer those points to JetBlue. With JetBlue’s TrueBlue program, points are worth around 1.3 cents apiece, which will give you about $312 toward JetBlue flights.
The Chase Freedom Flex is a great cash back credit card where you’ll receive 5% cash back on rotating quarterly bonus categories (up to $1,500 on combined purchases). If you’re able to maximize the quarterly bonuses, this will earn you an extra $75 per quarter.
But, you can earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points instead of cash back. If you have a premium Chase Ultimate Rewards-earning card, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you can transfer points from one account to another. That same maximum $75 you can earn in cash back each quarter is equivalent to 7,500 points when you choose to use them toward travel.
The benefit of using the points earned from your Chase Freedom Flex toward travel is that you have more versatility. This opens up the door to allow you to redeem your rewards toward travel — either by transferring to many partner airlines and hotels or when redeeming directly through Chase’s travel portal (where you’ll receive a 25% bonus on your points if you have the Sapphire Preferred or a 50% bonus if you have the Sapphire Reserve).
Frequent flyer website The Points Guy values Chase Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents apiece when transferring them to partner loyalty programs, which means you’re getting double the value than the cash back you’d receive.
For example, if you maximize your rotating quarterly bonus on the Chase Freedom Flex card, you’ll earn a total of 30,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points during the calendar year as opposed to earning $300 cash back. You can then transfer the Ultimate Rewards points to a partner program such as World of Hyatt, United, JetBlue or British Airways at a 1-to-1 ratio. Transferring those points to Hyatt, for example, can score you two free nights in San Diego where rates are easily more than $300 a night in the summer. Or, if you’re looking for something more exotic, you can use those 30,000 points for a free night in the Maldives.
Transferring your points between accounts is also incredibly easy. From the Ultimate Rewards combine points page, you can select your cash back card in the first column and then your premier Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card from the second. You can then decide exactly how many points you want to move from one account to the other. Best of all, point transfers are instant.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to worry about rotating quarterly bonuses, you might want to instead consider the Chase Freedom Unlimited card. The card works in a similar way to the Chase Freedom Flex where the cash back earned is actually in the form of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but the point-earning structure is significantly different — and more simplistic.
With this card, you’ll earn 1.5% cash back on most purchases. Similar to the Chase Freedom Flex, you’ll also earn 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards and 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery services.
Let’s say you spend $3,000 per quarter but on purchases that don’t fall into any of the bonus categories. You’ll then earn 1.5% cash back, which could be 4,500 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per quarter or 18,000 points throughout the calendar year. You can then transfer those points to United, for example, at a 1-to-1 ratio. With many short-haul flights on United costing just 5,000 miles one way, it’s easy to earn three one-way flights all on points just from this card alone.
Now, to truly maximize your points earned, you might want to consider having both the Chase Freedom Flex and Chase Freedom Unlimited along with the Chase Sapphire Preferred for the ultimate Chase trifecta. This will allow you to use the card that will earn you the most points on every purchase you make, ultimately helping to boost your Ultimate Rewards account.
With this card, you’ll earn 5% cash back — or 5x points if the ThankYou points are used toward travel — in one eligible category you spend the most in each month, up to $500 in purchases (then 1% cash back thereafter). Eligible categories include common household expenses such as gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, select travel, select transit, select streaming services, drugstores, home improvement, fitness clubs and live entertainment.
If you want to maximize your earnings on this card, the best practice is to dedicate your spend to a single category each month — one that doesn’t fall into a bonus category on any other credit cards you have — to maximize the full $500 maximum. This will then allow you to earn up to $25 cash back per month, which equates to $300 cash back over the course of a year or 30,000 ThankYou points.
With 30,000 points, you can transfer them to Wyndham Rewards, as an example, to book a hotel reservation. With Wyndham’s fixed award chart, the 30,000 points will typically earn you two nights at many properties worldwide. Or, you can use your points to book a two-night stay at a one-bedroom condo through Wyndham’s Vacasa Rental Management program. Based on personal experience, this could easily save you $1,000 on a two-night home rental.
For a limited time, the Citi Custom Cash Card is offering a sign-up bonus of $200 cash back after spending $1,500 within the first three months of account opening.
Similar to Chase Ultimate Rewards, one of the best ways to fully maximize your Citi ThankYou points is to have multiple Citi credit cards in your wallet. Colloquially known as the Citi Quartet, this will allow you to earn the most points every time you swipe your credit card.
Capital One SavorOne Rewards Credit Card
Similar to Chase and Citi, Capital One is another program where you can earn cash back but instead use the rewards toward free travel. The Capital One SavorOne Rewards Credit Card is an excellent cash back credit card where you’ll earn 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and at grocery stores — with no cap.
With the rewards earned on this no-annual-fee card, you can convert them at a 1-to-1 ratio to the Capital One Venture, Capital One VentureOne or Capital One Venture X cards. These are the more premium cards within the Capital One portfolio, which allow you to transfer miles to partner travel programs.
With Capital One miles worth 1.85 cents apiece, according to frequent flyer website The Points Guy, this means your purchases in the 3% bonus categories will give you more than a 5% return toward travel. One simple and rewarding way to redeem for free travel is to transfer your Capital One miles to British Airways Avios, where your miles can then be used on partner American Airlines.
To turn your cash back into Capital One miles, you’ll need to go into the “Share My Rewards” feature within the “Rewards” tab on Capital One.
Frequently asked questions about utilizing cash back credit cards towards travel
Not everyone is familiar with how to transform your cash back into travel rewards, so we’ve assembled some of the more common questions and and answers.
What are cash back credit cards that can be used towards travel?
Although marketed as “cash back” there are some credit cards that can earn you travel rewards instead. Instead of receiving automatic cash back as a check or statement credit, these rewards are deposited as points into a larger credit cards rewards program.
However, you’ll need to pair the cash back credit card with another premier credit card within the same credit cards rewards program. Each program works slightly different, but to do this, you’ll either transfer points between cards or all points accumulated within the credit card rewards program are consolidated into one bucket. And once the cash back is with the premier card, you can then use the cash back earned towards travel. This can be done by either booking travel through the programs travel portal or by transferring the points to a partner loyalty program.
What features should you look for in a cash back credit card that can be used towards travel?
Although there are many cash back credit cards that work this way, you’ll want to focus on a card that is tied to a program that works for you. For example, if you are looking to redeem your points for a hotel, then focus on a program that partners with both hotel and airline loyalty programs — not one that solely focuses with just airline partners.
Other features to consider include other non-reward benefits, such as travel and purchase protection, statement credits and annual fee. And since many of the programs require you to have a premium credit card to reap the travel rewards option, look for features that aren’t offered by the other credit card in your wallet.
What are the main credit card travel rewards program?
While each program works slightly different in the way you can accrue and redeem points and miles, they all have one thing in common — you can redeem your cash back earned with “cash back” credit cards towards travel. By learning more about each individual program, you can determine which cash back credit card works best for you, if you find yourself wanting more options than just cash back one day down the road.
Should you turn your cash back into travel rewards?
The short answer is yes, as long as you plan to travel in the future. If you’re looking at the best way to maximize your credit card rewards, there’s a good chance that turning your cash back into travel rewards will meet those goals. And since these programs have a wide array of airline and hotel transfer partners, you have endless opportunities for your next vacation. Of course, this does require you to have multiple credit cards in your wallet in some cases, but if you’re strategic about the card you use on every purchase you make, you’ll be on your way to traveling the world in no time.
Looking for a new credit card, but don’t need a cash back card? Check out CNN Underscored’s list of the best credit cards currently available.